how to be grunge
I picked my tribe a long time. As a bookish 13-year-old Brit just getting turned on to rock'n'roll, I picked grunge and never really looked back. It's of course completely rational to mould your entire adult identity around a sub genre of music that you were just that little bit too young to experience first hand and geographically nowhere near. Never mind that this was the 90s and telecommunication amounted to little more than tin cans on the ends of strings.
The better part of my years as a music journalist was spent trying to enact a Grunge revival; straight-facedly talking up bands like Cage The Elephant as the next major event in youth culture and putting together tribute issues for various anniversaries of Nevermind.
This compulsion came from outsider's anxiety, since, as a pasty teenager in the north of England who was turned onto this far-flung subculture (and as a consequence, pretty much everything else) by Nevermindblowing up, I was by definition, part of the problem. I could never be grunge enough. How could I be? The truly grunge gave up on Nirvana in 93, and a year later Kurt Cobain would kill himself because he was getting too much attention from people like me. Grunge was probably the genre that originated the attitude of turning on your favourite artists as soon as they became commercially successful.
UrbanDictionary.com's scientific list of grunge attitudes lists; 'strive for apathy and underachievement'; 'act like you don't care, even if you do'; 'usually have cynical and negative outlooks upon life'; 'respect women and reject jocks'.
Grunge was born because so few people cared what was going on in Seattle that the bands were able to feed and breed off each other in a bubble. It was a hybrid of punk's energy and politics and metal's insularity and down tuned chords. It mixed the feral fuzz of the former and the rhythmic complexity of the latter. Kurt once described Nirvana as a mixture Black Sabbath, Black Flag and The Beatles. So it follows that the true grunge fan will take a gene from both parents too, a mix of nihilistic apathy mixed with bookish precision. When you're grunge, you can maintain a righteous disillusionment with absolutely everything while still alphabetising your record collection. Screw the music, here was a genre that had me at hello! And so in my happy place, I will always be sat stapling together my fanzine in a Seattle coffee house circa-93, while my straight best friend performs open-mic poetry about his issues while people do smack in the corner.
Grunge is the ideal tribe for somebody who was never really part of it in the first place, because at the time, nobody really wanted anything to do with it. Soundgarden's Ben Shepherd said years later, "That's just marketing. It's called rock and roll, or it's called punk rock or whatever. We never were Grunge, we were just a band from Seattle." You could even argue that his immense discomfort with celebrity meant the word 'grunge' played a part in Kurt's suicide, but let's not go there.
But Grunge has form as the genre that never wanted to be. In the early-90s feeding frenzy, the Seattle scene was getting attention from the success of its sons and daughters and so its sons and daughters were getting issues about their success. This was a time when Seventh Avenue was co-opting plaid and flannel, and Marc Jacobs was straight-facedly hailed "the guru of grunge."
One such un/welcome piece of attention came in the form of New York Times reporter Rick Marin in 1992, who was writing a piece about this hot new trend which was "coming soon to a high school or mall near you."
Wanting the skinny of the Grunge street-speak, which of course, obviously definitely existed, Marin called up the offices of scene hub Sub Pop Records to find out. Receptionist Megan Jasper was unimpressed enough to while away the afternoon making up a list of terms off the top of her head. And so the Times helpfully printed a sidebar to its feature; 'The Lexicon Of Grunge: Breaking The Code'. A 'lame stain' was an uncool person, a 'harsh realm' was a bummer, a 'cob nobbler' was a 'loser', a 'dish' a desirable guy. To be 'bound-and-hagged' was to be staying home on a Friday night; if you were a 'bloated, big bag of bloatation' then you were drunk, while 'swingin' on the flippity-flop' meant simply hanging out.
It was a comprehensive directory, nobbled only by the fact that nobody actually said any of that stuff at all. The Times was outraged when The Baffler magazine exposed the hoax and demanded they fax over an apology for suggesting they had published misinformation, believing that their writer, Thomas Frank, had got it wrong. Frank responded with realness. "When The Newspaper of Record goes searching for the Next Big Thing and the Next Big Thing piddles on its leg," he wrote, "we think that's funny." Things were so much more fun before we had Google, weren't they?
Musically, grunge is just as inscrutable. Plenty of the bands most fondly associated with it, like Pixies and Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr, actually had very little to do with it. Sitting alongside Nirvana and Soundgarden and Alice In Chains are Foo Fighters (Dave Grohl's presence doesn't make you grunge); Bush (watered-down Brit-grunge), the Presidents Of The United States Of America (okay, actually from Seattle but just no) and Cage The Elephant. Actually Cage The Elephant, I really like you, sorry guys you don't deserve this. A few years ago I joined London grunge descendants Yuck on their US tour in Seattle, for a magazine feature because we thought it would be the most hilarious wheeze. They didn't get the joke at all, which of course, was the grunge-est response they could possibly have made.
So screw you, place and time. Grunge is a state of mind, and I'm off to get like a bloated, big bag of bloatation while y'all sit there all bound and hagged. If you need me I'll just be swingin' on the flippity-flop, lame stains.
Text Daniel Martin